It Takes Just 380 Milliseconds to Judge a Female Politician by Her Looks

A feminine face matters at the polls, new research has found.

National Journal
Marina Koren
May 15, 2014, 10:06 a.m.

She could have cam­paigned for months, but a wo­man’s suc­cess at the bal­lot box may have noth­ing to do with her policies, and something to do with her looks.

A new study from Dart­mouth Col­lege re­search­ers found that people could pre­dict wheth­er a fe­male politi­cian would win or lose an elec­tion with­in just 380 mil­li­seconds of see­ing a photo of her face. Turns out, how fem­in­ine wo­men’s fa­cial fea­tures are says a lot about their elect­or­al suc­cess.

Us­ing soft­ware that tracks com­puter mouse move­ments, re­search­ers showed nearly 300 par­ti­cipants pho­tos of politi­cians’ faces — the win­ners and run­ners-up in U.S. Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al elec­tions between 1998 and 2010. They then asked the par­ti­cipants to char­ac­ter­ize those faces as male or fe­male, and tracked how fast they made their de­cision. When par­ti­cipants saw a photo of a wo­man with re­l­at­ively mas­cu­line fea­tures, they ten­ded to hes­it­ate be­fore char­ac­ter­iz­ing her as “fe­male.” Pho­tos of wo­men with fem­in­ine fea­tures met with less un­cer­tainty.

It’s this pause, this gut re­ac­tion, that be­came the pre­dict­ive factor of elect­or­al suc­cess. The more par­ti­cipants were drawn to se­lect the male re­sponse when cat­egor­iz­ing the gender of a fe­male politi­cian’s face, the re­search­ers found, the less likely she was to win her elec­tion.

“In­di­vidu­als are highly sens­it­ive to gendered fa­cial cues, and these cues are pro­cessed with­in only mil­li­seconds after see­ing an­oth­er’s face,” says Jon Free­man, the study’s seni­or au­thor and de­veloper of the mouse-track­ing soft­ware. “It’s im­port­ant to ex­am­ine how fa­cial cues could in­ad­vert­ently af­fect fe­male politi­cians’ elect­or­al suc­cess, es­pe­cially giv­en the pos­sib­il­ity of a fe­male U.S. pres­id­ent in the near fu­ture and the rising num­ber of wo­men in Con­gress.”

Here’s how those snap de­cisions look, cour­tesy of Dart­mouth:

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4949) }}

The re­search­ers sus­pect that these find­ings are mod­er­ated by voters’ val­ues. In elec­tions in con­ser­vat­ive states, which are more likely to ad­here to tra­di­tion­al gender roles, fe­male can­did­ates with fem­in­ine fa­cial fea­tures won more of­ten than those with mas­cu­line fea­tures.

“Be­cause mas­culin­ity is ste­reo­typ­ic­ally as­so­ci­ated with lead­er­ship in the U.S., con­ser­vat­ives’ pref­er­ence for tra­di­tion­al gender roles and low tol­er­ance for un­cer­tainty may re­quire wo­men’s lead­er­ship as­pir­a­tions to be tempered by strong as­so­ci­ations with fem­in­in­ity, par­tic­u­larly in their ap­pear­ance,” says study au­thor Eric Heh­man.

Past re­search has shown that male politi­cians’ at­tract­ive­ness con­trib­utes to per­cep­tion of their com­pet­ence and lead­er­ship abil­ity. This cur­rent re­search isn’t about wheth­er voters find wo­men politi­cians at­tract­ive or cap­able. Rather, it’s about how their brains are hard­wired to re­spond to gender ste­reo­types. That pause in the ex­per­i­ment was what in­flu­enced wheth­er wo­men won or lost their elec­tions.

In oth­er words, how our brains sub­con­sciously pro­cess hu­man faces — and their bio­lo­gic­al and so­cial gender-spe­cif­ic at­trib­utes — can af­fect our vot­ing be­ha­vi­or more than how good-look­ing we con­sciously think they are.

What We're Following See More »
Brent Crude Rises Above $50/Barrel
58 minutes ago

"Brent crude rose above $50 a barrel for the first time in more than six months as a decline in U.S. stockpiles accelerated a rebound from a 12-year low. Futures climbed as much as 1.1 percent in London to $50.26, the highest intraday price since Nov. 4, after climbing 2.9 percent the previous two sessions. U.S. inventories shrank more than expected last week, government data showed, while supplies have also been curtailed in Nigeria, Venezuela and Canada."

Rick Wiley Bolts the Trump Campaign
1 hours ago

"Donald Trump on Wednesday parted ways with Rick Wiley, his national political director, just six weeks after the Republican operative joined the campaign." Wiley joined just six weeks ago, as Trump said he would be a "tremendous asset as we enter the final phase." But yesterday, Trump said in a statement that "hired on a short-term basis as a consultant."

Bill Would Reward Gov’t Employees for Ratting Out Waste and Abuse
1 hours ago

A bill that would "pay awards of up to $10,000 to federal workers who identify waste" cleared committee yesterday and is headed to the Senate floor. “I think it’s trying to align incentives in the government the way we do in the private marketplace,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).

Trump Jr. Meeting with GOP Members
15 hours ago
Ryan Not Endorsing Trump Just Yet
20 hours ago